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Andy Ricker on Cynics and Specific Regional Cooking

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

Without being prompted, the chef Andy Ricker tells me he isn't an expert on Thai cooking. Since 1987, as he has explained many times in recent years, he's been obsessed with the stuff. It's a learning process that has taken him to Portland, where he's opened several successful restaurants, and most recently to New York City, where his first move was to set up a wing shop on the Lower East Side at the beginning of the year. Now he's debuted a full restaurant on industrial Columbia Street, in Red Hook, and the lines are already out the door. In the following interview, Ricker talks about how he got into cooking, the heat he gets for being an American doing Thai food, New York City, and his future ambitions.

There's a lot out there on how you fell in love with Thai cooking and that particular mushroom dish that blew your mind. But how did you get into cooking?
I've been in the restaurant business since I was fifteen, so that's more than thirty years now. I grew up in Vermont, near a ski resort, and got a job washing dishes at a Swiss fondue restaurant. That's a great way to enter the industry, trying to scrub off baked-on cheese from pots. I just kind of worked throughout high school at restaurants in the area, and my mom worked in a restaurant as a cook.

Did you know that it was what you wanted to do?
No. It was what I did first so it's what I knew how to do. Then I moved to Vail, Colorado straight out of high school. I just dropped acid, got on a bus, and went to Colorado the day of graduation. So, my first real cooking job there was at a place called The Deli on Bridge Street, where I basically worked as a short-order cook. From there, it was one thing leads to another: you start as a short-order cook, then you work somewhere a bit nicer. My next job was at a Swiss-run prime rib house, and I worked my way up to sous chef there. Then I moved to other restaurants, and by that time, I had figured out that I was pretty good at being a line cook, so I stuck with it.

When I was young, career wasn't really what I was thinking about. When I went to Vail, it wasn't to cook. I went to go skiing. Then I moved to California, and that wasn't to make my way into restaurants. I went there to...

Party and get laid?
Yeah. I was 21 or 22, so I wasn't thinking about my career. But I kept cooking. And then I started to travel, so I left L.A. after a year and traveled for four years. I cooked to keep moving on, so I cooked my way through New Zealand and Australia and spent some time in Asia. By this time, I had been working in restaurants for ten years already. There was some point where I kind of realized that this was what I was going to be doing.

Was discovering the Thai stuff what solidified everything?
I think at some point I knew that this was what I was going to end up doing, more or less. I did take a detour for about eight years to become a painting contractor, which is one of the things I did when I was traveling. Probably getting into the Thai is what sparked that stuff. I had burned out and I discovered it outside of the kitchen. I had worked in this really good place in Portland — I got to Portland in the early 90s — called Zefiro, an iconic early pioneer. It was the best job in town, but I ended up hating it because I realized that I didn't want to cook for anybody. That's when I started the painting company.

After that, I never wanted to work for people again. The only thing I really knew how to do was cook. That's what brought me to opening a restaurant.

Let's fast-forward. Has your impression of New York as a dining city changed from before you opened the two Pok Poks here to now?
No, I don't think so. I've spent a good amount of time here and I have a pretty good idea of what it's about.

What do you think it's about?
It's about different things for different people. There's lots of different segments here. If you're talking about the world of chefs and PR and all that kind of shit, it's pretty much what it appears to be from the outside. I think it's an incredibly diverse place. There's a whole bunch of different worlds going on here. I think there's people doing things like we are, which is sort of independently. I don't have a PR firm, I don't have any backers, and I didn't spend a million dollars opening these places. Then you have the immigrants, who are coming here to do whatever they can do get a business going. And then you have the big guns. I just think that this restaurant fits in there somewhere.

I think that because of Pok Pok's notoriety, there's much more of a spotlight on this place than if I were starting from nothing. If I were starting from nothing, I wouldn't be talking to you right now. In Portland, it was that we started out and then put our heads down and worked. We started out as a little shack with eight things on the menu, which are still on there. After about six months is when we had lines out the street.

It's already a dining destination with crazy waits, right?
Yeah, but I think there's been lots of anticipation in the neighborhood, which is really what I want. I didn't want this to be just a destination restaurant. We're next to a couple of neighborhoods that are underserved.

Why Red Hook, why this space?
It's a combination of different things: I love the area and I actually have had a lot of success going into neighborhoods that were below the radar. That means that there are people that want to go out to eat and that the rents are cheaper and that it's generally easier to put a place together. One of the main reasons I got it, though, is where we're talking now, the outdoor area. It allows us to more or less echo what we do in Portland, which echoes what goes on in Thailand a lot.

It's a very common thing to have an American chef cooking a cuisine not tied to his or her personal heritage, but still, some chefs happen get shit for it. Do you?
Oh, of course. I continue to and I will forever. There's this kind of willingness to suspend belief in certain cases and not in others. Guys who are doing Italian food in the city who are not Italian — they get celebrated for it. What the fuck is the difference between a guy going to Italy and falling in love with it and a white guy who wants to learn to make Thai food?

Tell me more.
It's like any other cuisine: if you're really, really into it and you go and you study it and give it respect, you can learn and develop a palate. The heat I get for it comes in a lot of different ways. To a certain extent, I have an advantage over certain immigrants that come here and want to do this type of food. I am able to write a menu that has certain explanations on it that people can understand. I can describe a dish in a way that isn't just "Evil Prince." I'm able to describe certain things and try to make them sound appetizing, even if certain things in the preparation aren't what Westerners typically find appetizing — offal, blood, all that kind of stuff.

But, there's people who come into the restaurant and don't see any brown people working and feel like they're not having a proper experience. I find that deeply cynical and close to racist. If there isn't a brown person making the food, then the food isn't authentic? I actually never use the word "authentic," because it's too loaded. I find that a bit hypocritical, because the same people are willing to go to an Italian restaurant with a chef that isn't from Italy.

In the Thai community, it's interesting, because people will just look at me and say, "Do you have a Thai wife? Do you have a Thai chef?" What we're trying to do here is something that most Thai people who come to America wouldn't bother trying to do, because they typically wouldn't think that Americans would want to eat this food and because it's a pain in the ass to make. It's way harder than running a standard western Thai restaurant.

There's always going to be someone that will say that I'm a white dude doing fusion food, and I can tell you that that's absolutely not the case.

So, what is it that you're trying to do?
There's a big smorgasbord of dishes that don't see the light of day here. What I call this food is specific regional Thai. Basically I go there, I study the food, which I've been doing for years, even before I opened a restaurant. I learn the dishes there, I cook them there, and then I try as many different variations of it as I can before arriving at one that is very true to its origin. I don't literally go to a restaurant and ask how many tablespoons of something go into a dish.

I'll give you an example: the northern Thai laab that we do here is one of the first dishes I learned how to make. I was taught by a friend of mine's father-in-law, who had a specific way of making it. If you go one province over, that same dish changes. There are variations all over the place. So, what we're trying to do is make it how it would taste if you were to go to a restaurant in Chiang Mai, but not necessarily a specific restaurant. That's how we approach all of the food.

And just how difficult is it to make this food, as you suggested earlier?
Put it this way: most of the food I've learned to cook in this style is done in very, very crude kitchens. You may have two propane burners, a wood cutting block, a shitty knife, a mortar and pestle, a steamer and a wok and a pot. We're talking about people who are not technically proficient. They do a lot of things that seem like a waste and time and motion to my eyes, but what they arrive at is the stuff I like the most. This is not sophisticated food. This is simple, everyday food that people eat. There's very few things on the menu here that are wildly sophisticated, but the flavors are complex. It's not identifiable as anything — we taste it as westerners and think it's interesting, but some of the stuff doesn't taste like Thai food or western food. It's northern Thai.

I should put a caveat here: not everything we do is northern Thai. We do throw in some things that are from Isan, which is a totally different ethnolinguistic group and region. Northeastern and northern Thai are completely different.

Would you call yourself a restaurateur? How stressful is it having popular places in Portland and NYC?
Yeah, I've been a restaurateur for several years now. I'm bicoastal. I still am the executive chef and I still do all the dishes and recipes and train all of the cooks before we open. Do I work the line? I do when we first open and until things get stabilized. I can't be in two places at once literally, but Portland has been running for six years...

[Ricker gets distracted by an employee putting up a sign. "Make sure 'pla' and 'neung' are two separate words," he tells him.]

It's not super stressful to not be in Portland, because I have a really great team there. The other thing is that we're not always changing the menu. We change the menu maybe quarterly, and we're only changing about three or four dishes at a time.

What inspires the change in the menus?
Typically it's just the seasons and availability of product. We run specials, too, but they tend to be the same year after year. I'll introduce new dishes occasionally. The thing is, the way that food is done in Thailand — my favorite food — you don't go to a restaurant that changes their dishes every week. People do the same dishes for generations and generations, and that's how you get really good at something. I'm a firm believer in that. The more things we have on the menu that we can't take off, the better for me. It's better for managing, the bottom line, and the customers, who I think — despite their desire to try new things — like ordering the same, comforting thing every time they go to a place. That's human nature.

Then you have the chefs that bemoan the fact that they have to keep certain things on the menu for ages.
In some ways, it gets boring. I don't really respond to the word "chef." Classically it means the chief of the kitchen, which I guess I am, but it has also come to mean "person who creates these dishes." And I don't do that. They're something that exists in a time and place, and all we are trying to do here is recreate them. I'm really a cook. My creative process has more to do with that than with coming up with things constantly. I think there's a lot of honor in doing the same thing over and over again, as is the case at the best places in Thailand.

Also, the things that don't sell as well and are a bit more esoteric really excite me — the things that we rotate out. That's what fuels me creatively more than constantly changing the menu. You know, [David] Chang never takes the pork buns off so he can maybe put the tripe on there. I'll keep the chicken wings on there so I can put the frog soup that we sell maybe two or three of a night.

What are your ambitions for the future?
My ambitions for the future are making sure that Pok Pok NY is set, finishing a cookbook, and opening the new place in Portland. It probably won't happen this year, but I want to spend extended time in Thailand and learn how to read the language better. While I have friends there that can translate for me, I can't ask them to read every sign at every restaurant, because it'd drive them fucking nuts. I want to know these things.

There's been a lot in the press that calls me an expert on Thai food. None of that came from me. I'm a student and that's how I feel about it. I've got a lot to learn, even about the stuff that I already understand.

Do you think it'd ever be possible to become an expert, or is that something not worth thinking about to you?
I don't think that's my goal. My goal is to learn more and more. I'm in this for my life. I love this food, I love the culture, and I don't have any other plans for my life.

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